President gives an address at the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics Ireland Games

Thu 14th Jun, 2018 | 18:30
location: Tallaght Stadium, Dublin

Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Special Olympics Ireland Games

Tallaght Sadium, Thursday 14 June 2018

You are citizens who have refused to be defined or limited by the narrow stereotypes that still linger in our society today. Instead you have embraced the expectation that you too can succeed; can aspire to live the life of your choice; have your voices heard; your talents respected; and can and should be defined by your skills and abilities and by all of your possibilities.

Tá áthas orm a bheith libh anseo tráthnóna le haghaidh Searmanais Oscailte Chluichí Oilimpeacha Speisialta na hÉireann 2018. Is mian liom fáilte ar leith a fhearadh roimh na lúthchleasaithe ar fad a bheidh ag iomaíocht anseo sna laethanta amach romhainn.

I am delighted to join you all here this evening for the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Special Olympics Ireland Games. 

And the first thing I want to say is, when you see the scoreboard, it will be saying: Storm Hector 0, Special Olympics 1.

I do want to pay tribute to all those who have overcome all of the difficulties, to create what is a wonderful model of organisation, and I so congratulate everyone who has been helpful.

And I want to especially welcome all the athletes from across the 32 counties of Ireland who will be competing here over the coming days.

I thank Special Olympics Ireland, and its CEO Matt English, as well as its Chairperson Brendan Whelan and indeed its International CEO Mary Davis, for inviting me to perform this opening ceremony, and I have to say it is greatly inspiring to see the very large gathering here today for this wonderful event.

2018 is, of course, a particularly important year in the history of Special Olympics Ireland; the year in which you mark your 40th anniversary. Your achievements during those forty years have been impressive and include the participation by Team Ireland in many Olympic events where you have represented us so proudly on the international stage.

I also recall the historic torch run in 1996 when members of an Garda Síochana passed the torch across the border to members of the RUC, a greatly moving moment which made headlines across the world. And, of course, like so many Irish people I remember with great joy the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer games, and the great pride we all felt as Ireland became the first country outside the United States to host the World Games. 

These are all memorable occasions, but equally impressive is the fact that Special Olympics Ireland has continued with dedication and enthusiasm to the fulfilling of its mission to:

“provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with an intellectual disability, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendships with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community."

That may be is quite a long statement but it is such an important one that has, at its very heart, the vision of “transforming lives through the joy of sport, every day, everywhere”. That is the vision on which the worldwide special Olympics were founded by Eunice Shriver; a vision which has continued to be its driving force across the years.  

The seeds of that vision were planted, over fifty years ago, in a garden in Maryland when Eunice invited a group of young people with intellectual disabilities to a summer day camp at her home.

Eunice Shriver had grown up at a time when those with intellectual disabilities were excluded from many, many aspects of everyday life, and often unfortunately stereotyped due to ignorance, prejudice or misinformation. 

Eunice’s vision was one that reached far beyond the ending of stereotyping. She saw the great disservice that society was doing to so many of its members who had so much potential, so many gifts and talents and so much desire to flourish and realise all of their possibilities. 

As children swam, played soccer and basketball and even rode horses in Eunice’s garden on that Summer day back in 1962 history was being made, stereotypes were beginning to shatter and an important step forward for those with intellectual disabilities had been taken. 

The summer camp was repeated and grew and thrived. It attracted the attention of members from the local community who began to turn up as interested and enthusiastic spectators, and they were soon followed by representatives of the parks department and public-school system. 

In July 1968 the world witnessed a key event in the changing landscape for people with intellectual disabilities when the very first International Special Olympics Games, which grew out of that Summer Camp, was held at Soldier Field in Chicago with 1,000 athletes participating.

Today, the Special Olympics is a leader in the field of intellectual disability and the world’s largest movement dedicated to promoting respect, acceptance, inclusion, and human dignity for people with intellectual disabilities. 172 countries across the world now participate in the Special Olympics programme and our athletes and coaches here today are part of that remarkable global family.

I have often spoken, as President of Ireland, about the importance of becoming active citizens willing to make our own unique contribution to the shaping of a shared future and a re-imagined Ireland that celebrates all our possibilities.  

All of our athletes here today are such citizens; citizens we can be very proud of indeed. You are citizens who have refused to be defined or limited by the narrow stereotypes that still linger in our society today. Instead you have embraced the expectation that you too can succeed; can aspire to live the life of your choice; have your voices heard; your talents respected; and can and should be defined by your skills and abilities and by all of your possibilities. 

It is that determination and courage, harnessed to huge dedication and constant hard work that has brought you here today. Over the next few days you, our Special Olympics athletes from the five regions of Connaught, Eastern Region, Leinster, Munster and Ulster will compete across thirteen different sports ranging from Athletics to Gymnastics to Equestrian and Tenpin Bowling, all of you aspiring to be the very best you can be and to make your families, your communities and your country very proud. 

I have no doubt that many of the 1,600 athletes competing in this year’s Ireland Games dream of being selected to represent Ireland at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in March next year. It is the dream of any athlete to compete for their country on the world stage and I wish you all well as you begin that journey here today.

However, it is important to remember that success is not only measured in medals won or records broken. By being here today to compete in the Ireland Games 2018 you have already proven that you are remarkable people who have the special qualities that mark out those who are not only very gifted people, but people of courage, of determination, and of perseverance in the face of challenges, difficulties, and frequent setbacks.

Eunice Shriver Kennedy was an inspirational woman whose incredible spirit and generosity changed the way the world would view people with intellectual difficulties. She not only imagined and envisioned a better world, but was determined to make her vision a reality. She was unafraid to question the status quo and to play her part in leading us towards a better and fairer society. Through many years of persistent effort to effect positive change, she was instrumental in ensuring that those living with disabilities would no longer be invisible members of society, but active and very visible participants.

But may I pay tribute to all those Irish women and men who saw the significance of that vision and the value of transporting it and extending it. You know who you are and I salute you all at every level.

Her legacy was a profound one from which all of society has benefitted. Our athletes here today have honoured that legacy and have generously carried forward her great vision. As President of Ireland I commend and thank you all for ensuring her flame and her vision continue to burn brightly. 

Whether or not you gain medals, or are selected to go forward to the Olympic World Summer Games, you are citizens of who we can be very, very proud indeed. 

As to today’s event and what will follow, I congratulate you all on the hard work and commitment you put in to qualify to compete at the Ireland Games.  

I am sure that everybody in Ireland joins me in wishing every person associated with the Games - athletes, coaches, volunteers, family members and friends – a hugely enjoyable and rewarding competition. 

Is mian liom gach rath a ghuí ar bhur  n-iarrachtaí go léir sna laethanta amach romhainn agus tá áthas orm a dhearbhú anois go bhfuil tús oifigiúil le Chluichí Oilimpeacha Speisialta na hÉireann 2018.

I wish you the very best in all your endeavours over the next few days and I am delighted to now declare the 2018 Special Olympics Ireland Games officially open.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir